Yesterday we decided to visit the stately home of Holkham Hall and set off late in the morning having taken a leisurely breakfast more cups of tea than I usually would.
It was another sunny day and if it were to be the last summers day of the year then there could be no complaints as the weather has been great for 3 months or more with more than the odd heat-wave. Of course, I would have one complaint and that is my summers holiday is now when the weather is seemingly doomed to turn autumnal.
We had only driven a few miles through the deserted narrow lanes of Norfolk when we came across another village. Like all the others, it was picturesque in the extreme. The sort of place where rush-hour is 10 times quieter than my supposedly quiet suburban residential street is at midnight. It had a run of red brick cottages with flint walls and red-tiled roofs that rather remind me of Holland and north-east France. Past the quiet pub and the butcher’s shop that also sells guns (isn’t that a way to put yourself out of business?), it also had a church in the footprint of a ruined abbey.
Binham Abbey is a very romantic looking ruin, not the most magical I have been to but certainly one of the biggest. Originally built at the tail end of the 11th Century by William De Volognes, a nephew of William The Conqueror if my rather overloaded memory is correct. It was once the second biggest abbey in England but then 450 years later King Henry VIII had his falling out with The Pope and in a fit of rage and religious persecution sent his men around the realm to level the catholic abbeys and churches and plunder them for treasure.
The locals were given the chance to purchase back as much of the Abbey as they could. As it turned out, they could afford about a third of the main Knave which is probably only 10% or less of the entire complex which now lie in ruins above ground and in some places, excavated below it.
What remains is a very dramatic local church with the grandest Font in Norfolk and thanks to the Victorians, a restored and extremely high roof. The church is still in use but for 6 days a week is also a tourist attraction. It is a very ethereal experience wondering the ruins and standing in front of the original altar which is from time to time still used in the summer. Henry VIII wasn’t the first to plunder the Abbey as the Normans themselves either hugely modified the building or knocked down the older Anglo-Saxon one just to impose their own superiority on proceedings, making the building perhaps 3 feet /1 metre bigger in all directions. The Normans were always into imposing structures with very impressive arches which are still amazing today but the original Anglo-Saxon buildings of which there are still several remaining are so much more genteel and a sad reminder of what happened to them or should I say us?
There is a large farm right next to the Abbey, it was originally part of the Abbey grounds itself along with a large amount of pasture land, ponds and a watermill. They were entirely self-sufficient and the high wall and gate-house meant that the focus purely on their daily duties and prayers to God.
Following from the Abbey, we drove another 12 miles to the stately home of Holkham Hall. Belonging to the Coke family, though not I think the exact people who have a drink which I much prefer to Pepsi.
The grounds of this house are absolutely astounding perhaps made more so due to the flatness of Norfolk meaning you can see for miles without interruptions except for the many woods on the estate. The house has a large lake on which you can go rowing as well as quite a big island on the lake which is now a nature reserve. Most man made lakes in these big houses have lakes as not only does it look pretty but it was a way to use all the soil they had dug up to create the lake.
There were also electric buggy rides to the walled garden just over a mile from the house. It was here that all the food was grown that would support the house. These days only about a quarter is still properly used and the food grown there supports the house as well as the hotel which the family own in the nearby village.
The house itself is very large but made almost entirely out of brick which we thought a little odd but apparently it is built this way to lower the expectations of visitors which is what it did for us. Inside there is a lavish entrance all made out of alabaster which looks like marble but is slightly translucent. There are steps upstairs which take you to a level full of Greek and Roman columns and statues of Gods. We had a bit of fun guessing which Gods were which and not always guessing the right ones.
The house is still lived in by an aristocratic family and today it was a hive of activity as that evening they were expecting some very important and very rich Russian visitors, possibly to do with Art. There were household staff preparing the red carpets, setting out silver cutlery for their evening meal and even raking the wide gravel driveway so that it looked brand new for their arrival. It was all very Downton Abbey.
The house was extremely richly decorated with more paintings on the wall than is average even for such houses and many my famous artists such as Poisson. There was gold everywhere and some of the rooms were covered in Flemish tapestries which looked incredible and went from floor to ceiling. That doesn’t quite do them justice as some of the rooms were so large that they could easily fit my whole house in several times over.
The state bedroom had been slept in by several kings and queens including a very young Princess Victoria.
Holkham Hall is also home to a museum of historic items, especially motor vehicles which are are housed in the old stable block. They have everything from old steam engines and fire engines to classic jaguars and 60’s styles California hippy caravans.
Before we left, we visited their shop and the restaurant where we had the largest scones imaginable as well as some chocolate and pecan pie, hot chocolates with a mountain of cream on top.
The whole house was amazing and shows up how in many ways how the house hasn’t really changed from how it was centuries ago. They still have a large staff and though lots of effort is now put in to attracting visitors with things like restaurants and drivers and guides, they continue to have maids, servants, gardeners and administrative staff.